Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Maxwell Street Market

I recently watched a couple documentaries on the Maxwell Street Market—Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street, and then And This Is Free: The Life and Times of Chicago's Legendary Maxwell Street. Both were very interesting. (This is a topic of fascination for me, and going to the new Maxwell Street Market on Des Plaines is probably my favorite thing to do in Chicago).

Cheat You Fair is mostly about the market getting shut down, which is a pretty disheartening story. Another reminder that Chicago is really corrupt, and that poor people's interests are rarely considered in the face of government or business development. There were a lot of interesting discussions about gentrification, UIC's location as a buffer between the loop and black communities on the west side, and corruption in city hall. There was also an attempt to piece together the larger history of UIC's development, but I think that's probably its own (fascinating and sordid) topic. In general, it seems like this location was chosen for the university because it was occupied by poor people with very little political capital. That area has basically been rebuilt from scratch over the last 20-30 years, accompanied by rapid gentrification.

And This Is Free is two films put together. One was made in 1965, and is almost completely without narration and all the footage was shot in that year. It's awesome. The other is a history going back a bit further, focusing more on the Jewish community and their experience and their role in shaping what the market eventually became. There's a lot of great footage in there: it looks like it's from as early as the thirties. There were a lot of anecdotes from people who grew up selling things as children on Maxwell Street, and the overwhelming lesson they all got from that experience was how to work with people. Makes sense I guess. There was also this great anecdote about a guy whose family had a butcher shop on 14th and Halsted, and the way he got meat to the store was he took the Halsted streetcar to the stockyards on 43rd and Halsted, and then he got a half a cow. Then he put some wax paper on his back and put the cow on the wax paper, and then boarded the streetcar north back to 14th street. (How many lawsuits can you count in that anecdote?) On the whole it was a really interesting documentary. Less informative perhaps than Cheat You Fair, but lots more interesting interviews and footage.

It's a damn shame they shut down the market. Glad it's been revived, but the new development in the University Village area could easily have accommodated some preservation of that community and cultural history.

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